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‘The Black Phone’ (review)

With Stephen King adaptations essentially being a genre in their own right, it is perhaps not that strange that once his son Joe Hill had established himself as an equally gifted horror author in his own right, Hollywood would start looking towards Hill as yet another source for horror movie concepts.

While Hill may not be as much of a household name as his father is, he has nonetheless already seen his works get adapted for the big and small screen alike with the likes of the Daniel Radcliffe-led Horns gracing the former, and the series Locke & Key having been well-received on the latter.

Based on the Hill short story of the same name, The Black Phone combines the work of the talented writer with director Scott Derrickson’s knack for horror in a film that works incredibly well, not only in terms of the storytelling capabilities of both creators, but it also further merges their talents with the immensely popular nostalgic settings of yesteryear so frequently seen in current horror content, resulting in a captivating coming-of-age horror that finds its own identity instead of merely latching on to contemporary trends solely for the sake of profit.

Having wanted to make an adaptation of the short story for several years, Derrickson eventually walked away from the director’s chair for the Doctor Strange sequel due to creative differences, and Derrickson being back in his element as a horror director unmarred by studio interference seeps through every frame of The Black Phone.

Here, a mundane setting of a working class town in late 1970s Colorado is haunted by Ethan Hawke’a deeply unsettling The Grabber, who terrorizes the community as he snatches their children who are never see again, and confounds law enforcement as he seemingly never leaves any traces after his crimes.

Lead actor Mason Thames’ Finney inevitably crosses paths with The Grabber, but once the smart yet insecure teenager finds himself captured and confined to a creepy basement, the film slowly begins to reveal its supernatural elements as the eponymous black phone hanging on the basement wall starts ringing in spite of being disconnected.

Divulging anything further about the plot would be a disservice to the viewing experience, as the film is a deeply engaging slow burn that never loses momentum. This is thanks to both the narrative progression of the story as a whole and the character arc of Thames’ Finney in particular, all of which keeps the proceedings grounded and thrilling with the young Thames competently carrying the film with a deeply compelling and nuanced performance.

Another standout among the cast is Madeleine McGraw. Delivering plenty of both heart and humor, the young actor portrays Finney’s feisty younger sister with a gravitas and confidence that is seldom seen in someone so young, just as she helps induce some very sincere and much needed laughs from time to time.

While it is frequently proclaimed that cinema in general and the horror genre particular is losing its edge and dying out, there are still true gems being released from time to time, and The Black Phone is one such gem.

From start to finish, the film displays the level of craftsmanship of all involved, giving audiences a richly atmospheric and unusually well-crafted horror thriller inhabited by clever and compelling characters that are easy to invest in.

Once again showcasing Derrickson’s talent as a horror filmmaker, The Black Phone easily rivals his contemporary classic Sinister, just at it makes the idea of Hill adaptations becoming a genre in their own right a great prospect, one which horror hounds everywhere will undoubtedly lap up with great enjoyment.

Verdict: 8 out of 10.

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Jason Blum, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Screenplay by Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Based on “The Black Phone” by Joe Hill
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Starring Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw,
Jeremy Davies, James Ransone, Ethan Hawke


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